Reviewed by Ian Lipke
I must admit that until now I had never heard the name Hazel Rowley. I did not know that I had been missing the works of a writer of consummate prose. Here I distinguish, as I’m sure the editors do, between writing biographies and biographical writing. The first suggests writers researching, and collating, information to form accurate records of people’s lives. These may consist of a university thesis, an earnest attempt to tell a story with sensitivity and accuracy, or simply a pumping-out of words to reach some pre-determined limit.
Biographical writing is much more difficult to define. It is the province of the very few, the engaged, the Michelangelos of the literary world, whose labours are legion, long and unaffected by deadlines or other lifestyle events. Rowley warns that biographers, serious writers, “have to be resilient and fiercely determined. They are always going to encounter major obstacles. They have to be patient; they have to be doggedly persistent” (22).
Biographical writers are pensive folk, often unaccepting of that which does not stand up to scrutiny. Rowley claims that they swim in a certain culture, they live at a certain historical moment, and have achieved awareness that social forces shape the smallest decisions. These are the thoughts of a thinker, ideas not normally interrogated in lesser biographers. Della Rowley and Lynn Buchanan devote an initial chapter to Hazel Rowley’s views on biographical writing. They supply her thoughts on writing biographies, why she loved writing them, and the difficulties she encountered.
This section of Rowley and Buchanan’s tribute to Hazel Rowley is the summation (in, I am sure, Hazel’s words):
A good biographer looks at a life with precision of a historian, the insight of a psychologist, and the dramatic flair of a novelist…A good biography makes us reflect on the times…and gives us some perspective on our own lives (30).
We’re talking about engagement, a skill that Hazel Rowley’s writing presents in living colour. Her editors (in this case) take us with their subject on research trips and occasions when she made personal connections. This section shows what really distinguishes fine quality biographical writing. Effort and the confirmation of facts, following leads that may produce gold or, equally, valueless outcomes. Hazel’s essay on Mockingbird Country (originally Best Australian Essays, 1999, pp 285 – 92) is essential reading.
The first ninety-one pages unfold in best quality writing, that is full of interest, high in excitement, and variety. It puzzles me that the editors did not double the volume of this segment, purely from the standpoint of reader popularity. Replacing the first part are biographical excerpts from Hazel’s writings on Christina Stead, Richard wright, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. These are person-specific and point the way to potential disaster. Most readers know very little about at least one of Hazel’s subjects. However, Hazel’s introduction to Christina Stead will be remain long in memory:
Savage, spiky, a constant quarreller who disliked women and broke with many of her friends – Christina Stead was all of these…But…she saved her most ferocious loathing for herself. (95)
When introducing Hazel Rowley’s excerpt on Christina Stead, the editors write that Hazel had huge respect for Stead, for “her grit and independence and her ground-breaking writing” (95). Having read Rowley and Buchanan’s tribute to Hazel Rowley’s writing capabilities, and having lain within the meadow, my features brushed by the beauty of the pen of Hazel Rowley, I feel with them a great sense of loss at the passing in 2011 of a truly magnificent biographer.
Life as Art. This book locates one in the other in the writing of Hazel Rowley.
By Della Rowley & Lynn Buchanan (eds.)
The Miegunyah Press
$34.99; 258 pp